Many thanks to Dr Melissa Haswell for sharing her reflections on the impact of climate change for those experiencing the worst of extreme weather.

Dr Haswell writes:

If we listen to the time, we can change all hearts and minds… 

(Alex Lloyd, 2011; Hearts and Minds, soundtrack from the motion picture Mad Bastards)

No matter how attuned we are to the cognitive realities of the extreme weather events – now heightened by our warmer oceans and atmosphere – most of us must remind ourselves that we don’t know what it is really like to experience climate change face to face. We must remember our humility in consideration of those who do, especially in nations so battered that even safety nets are destroyed.

Arguing whether these events are ‘caused’ by climate change is increasingly seen as an irrelevant armchair question, sometimes designed to divert attention and action from the scientific consensus that continuing emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will increase the magnitude and severity of severe weather events and their sequelae.

The questions mean little to the increasing numbers of people around the world whose lives, loved ones and homes are taken by human disturbance of our climate and sea levels. They also ignore the broad harms of climate change mediated through infectious disease, biodiversity and economic loss, and food and water insecurity. These small debates nonetheless dominate Australian discourse, eroding our responsiveness to the greatest challenge of our time.

One person who understands this clearly is medical doctor and recent UNSW graduate, Dr Allison Gocotano. After completing coursework in June, he returned home to the Philippines to work in Health Program Development and Health Systems Advancement with the Health Futures Foundation.

On November 6, Dr Gocotano might have returned to Australia to don academic dress and receive Testamurs for the Master of International Public Health and Master of Health Management with his many colleagues.

He was instead involved in massive preparation as Typhoon Haiyan, perhaps the most severe storm of modern times, approached his country.

Two days later the storm came with shocking ferocity. Dr Gocotano emailed UNSW colleagues:

“I am just writing to you to share some news that test the human spirit from my country. Last November 8, the Philippines was devastated by the strongest typhoon ever recorded in its history. Cities, particularly Tacloban City, was reduced to what some may describe as a wasteland. Pre-designated evacuation centers were not spared…

Relief access to isolated populations is just getting organized. There are areas where people have had no food nor drinking water for three consecutive days and counting. Non-food items and medical supplies especially for trauma cases are also needed. Security and civil disorder are a concern. People are walking back and forth wearing blank faces. Lastly, as I am writing to you now, another tropical depression has entered the country.

… Much of the world and international organizations have pledged and sent aid. Perhaps the greatest challenge now is getting organized and ensuring equitable and timely distribution of such aid”. 

Dr Gocotano however, has a more profound message for us beyond the pressing emergency response. It reflected back on his reason for studying Environmental Health that he shared in the opening workshop, “My country is a recipient of the impacts of climate change – we bear the brunt of other country’s decisions not to take action. I want to gain more knowledge to deal with this fact”. 

Given his excellence as a scholar, those fortunate enough to teach him are not surprised that this astute mind was already looking beyond the devastation in front of him and reflecting on the deeper meaning:

Perhaps the best way for support at the moment is raising awareness and taking action even at the personal level of changing one’s belief. My greatest fear is if the cycle of evacuation-destruction-reconstruction becomes a way of life. It would be unfortunate to believe that the frequency with which such events occur ‘numbs’ us to its effects.

One could argue that Australians may already be numb to the effects of climate change, not through horror, but through studied diversion. Our Prime Minister built an election platform to ‘scrap’ the carbon tax, cut support to renewable energy development and replace these with a collection of ‘direct action’ proposals with no evidence of sufficiency, even as people already suffer immeasurably.

Whether Australians delivered political power to Tony Abbott because of, or in spite of, this is unknown – but the lack of serious debate by either major party suggests the nation has not yet come to grips with either the urgency or the magnitude of future devastation that awaits, not just the Philippines, but the whole planet – should we not change. Tragically climate change cannot be reversed and will only increase for future generations, if we remain idle and ignore the possibilities of clean energy and other transformations that will protect and promote our health and wellbeing.

Being numb in the face of such urgency is not good. Heeding Dr Gocotano’s words, coming directly from inside the devastation, we are urged to change our beliefs and reject the notion that life can be lived in utter insecurity and disaster. For Australians, if we allow this numbness to direct our (lack of) action, the situation experienced by the Philippines today, and by Australians facing larger and fiercer fires, droughts, heatwaves, cyclones and floods, may become hell for those hit and commonplace to those looking on without connection to the suffering of people unfortunate enough to be in the way.

We have much work to do in Australia – personally I hope we never become numb to any human suffering. I hope we are reaching a point where we simply stop allowing the degrading of our Australian identity as a people of responsibility, empathy, intelligence, strength and love to do what we can for the good of all humanity. We all have a responsibility to ensure that these qualities are intensified, not diminished, by the enormity of challenge facing us right now.

Melissa Haswell (PhD, Imperial College, London) is an Associate Professor at Muru Marri, School of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of New South Wales.  She has extensive experience in research and teaching in Indigenous and international health. Dr Haswell is also a member of the Doctors for the Environment Australia (Honorary), the Public Health Association of Australia and the Climate and Health Alliance. She frequently shares her knowledge and expertise in public health through government submissions and to assist community groups resisting fossil fuels development in Sydney’s Water Catchment and in other locations that are essential for the security of future population health and wellbeing.